Written by Andreas Fulda.

The industrial scale of US and UK government-backed internet surveillance has sent shock waves around the world. American whistle blower Edward Snowden revealed that the US National Security Agency (NSA) not only targeted universities in Hong Kong but also the mobile phone messaging of millions of mainland Chinese citizens. Recent reports by the German magazine Der Spiegel suggest that the NSA also spied on key institutions of the European Union and logged the meta data of more than half a billion telephone calls, emails and SMS in Germany every month. The leaks by Edward Snowden also revealed that NSA and the British GCHQ have granted each other access to such intelligence findings.

Supposedly liberal democracies such as the United States and the United Kingdom thus have engaged in covert cyberspace operations, actions which were previously assumed to be the hallmark of autocratic regimes. British government officials have downplayed the extent of intrusion into the private lives of citizens around the world. While on 9 June MP William Hague claimed that “If you have nothing to hide, you’ve nothing to fear”, the British Ministry of Defense issued a D notice on 17 June to British media organisations, which were supposed to refrain from reports on the spying programmes which could potentially “jeopardise national security”.

The British government’s D notice closely resembles the way censorship instructions are being communicated in China. The Guardian reported that the D notice “was marked ‘private and confidential: not for publication, broadcast or use on social media’” and would not have been noticed by the general public if it had not been posted on an independent blog. In China, censorship instructions likewise are being communicated in secret and only find their way to light thanks to leaks by courageous Chinese journalists, posted on independent websites such as China Digital Times at the University of Berkeley.

There are increasing press reports in mainland Europe which suggest that the US and UK spying programmes such as Prism by the NSA and Tempora by the British GCHQ are not being used to primarily engage in counter-terrorism activities. Industrial espionage, both among non-allies such as China as well as supposedly allied nations like Germany have become part of the mission of both NSA and GCHQ. This mission creep is likely to set off alarm bells in Beijing and Berlin. Industrial espionage is likely to undermine economic growth in both countries, thereby becoming Chinese and German national security issues in their own right.

In the light of these developments two corrective measures have to be taken. First of all, the British Ministry of Defense needs to immediately lift the D notice in order to give the British public an opportunity to learn from a multitude of domestic press reports about the extent of government-backed internet surveillance. Secondly, the British government has to put an end to blanket internet surveillance and enter into an open and transparent dialogue about a binding international agreement on privacy rights. If these steps are not forthcoming this will not only damage the public’s trust in the functioning of British democracy but also endanger the UK’s current and future position in the world.

Dr Andreas Fulda is Lecturer in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham. 

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